Scomber Scombus, or Scumbria (accent on the first syllable), as we call it in Odessa, is “the true mackerel” (Integrated Taxonomic Information System, 2012), and this is not an Odessa story. Odessa stories come in four categories:
- Mostly true
- Creatively true
- Legend with some names thrown in
- Wild fantasy
Take category 1, for instance. The famous Odessa Opera house (not the one you see here; this one was built on the same spot later) opened in 1810, and for the first couple of decades of its existence drew very little audience. Then governor-general Count Michail Vorontsov came up with an original solution. He appointed the owner of the theater to a position of medical inspector whose job was to inspect all new arrivals in the Odessa port. Odessa had suffered from black plague, supposedly brought from Turkey, so the fear of another epidemics was ripe. It so happened that the new inspector invariably discovered infection among the newly arrived passengers who were promptly quarantined – at their own cost. Quarantine fees would subsequently be used to hire world-renown artists to perform at the theatre (King, 2004). Unbelievable, but mostly true!
Category 2 involves the famed Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, considered the best Giselle in the world. We in Odessa have always had everything the first, the best, and sometimes the only! The other part Alicia Alonso is famous for is Carmen in Rodion Schedrin’s ballet version of Bizet’s opera. Of course we all knew that Alicia Alonso came to The Soviet Union to teach Maya Plisetskaya, the foremost Russian star (and Schedrin’s wife) to dance the Sevillian seductress. And doubtless, having come to Russia, the Cuban diva travelled to Odessa to perform in out unique Opera House. The story is hanging on the last name – Alonso. Alberto Alonso, brother-in-law to Alicia, was a co-founder, artistic director, and choreographer of Ballet Alicia Alonso, which later became Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Carmen-suite, as the ballet is called, was written and produced for Maya Plisetskaya by her request, and Alberto Alonso, who had first created the innovative, shocking, but brilliant choreography in Cuba, trying the moves with Alicia, came to Bolshoi to produce the ballet there. Alicia was not present. Did maestro Alonso ever come to Odessa? I don’t know; I was attending college out of town at the time. I heard the story later and found no records of it anywhere, but the scandalous Carmen-suite was duly produced and performed in Odessa Opera house, as soon as it got out of disfavor with Soviet authorities.
Fyodor Shalyapin, the great bass, did perform in Odessa quite a few times before the revolution prompted him to emigrate to Paris. The story goes that Stalin, who spared no effort trying to entice famous emigrants to return, allowed the Bolshoi to tour France. The bass who was among the troupe (the name remained unknown), went to see Shalyapin. Having paid his respects to the star, young singer started describing the wonderful life in communist Russia and all the privileges enjoyed by artists there. “You see, I sing Mephistopheles on Bolshoi scene!,” – he proudly declared. “You do? – sardonically inquired the great Shalyapin, – Well, they got what they deserved.” In my mind, this anecdote, told and retold in numerous variations, belongs to category 3.
Finally, here is an example of category 4, Wild Fantasy. Any Odessite will tell you that our Opera house is one of the two most beautiful in Europe, the other one being Vienna Opera house, which is the exact copy of ours, built later by the same architects, but on a smaller scale. Imagine my shock when I found myself in Vienna, in front of the Wiener Staatsoper which doesn’t look anything like the one in Odessa. Look at the two photos: it’s not even the same architectural style. Lavishly decorated in Rococo style, with impeccable acoustics, Odessa Opera house was built almost 20 years later than the one in Vienna, built by a different architect in Greek revival style. The basis for fantasy? Ours was designed by two Viennese architects.
Now a pop quiz for you, Beautiful People: in which category would you put the following story?
One of the Odessa Tales by Isaac Babel is called Di Grasso. It vividly describes a performance by a great Italian tragic in what could be construed as Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni. In the colorful Babel style, the story is bursting with Odessa passion for opera; the ticket scalpers charge five times the price and tickets are impossible to obtain even at that exorbitant cost. Mishka Yaponchik (Michael the Japanese), the king of Odessa gangsters, has issued an order to stop all criminal activities in and around the theater during the shows. The Italian guest artist, left unnamed by Babel, was none other than the Great Caruso!
Yet Caruso has never visited Odessa. Titta Ruffo, another great Italian opera singer, did, but he was a baritone, while the lead part in Mascagni’s opera is a tenor. So who was immortalized in Babel’s story? Described in such realistic details, it could not have been pure fantasy, and it isn’t: Beniamino Gigli, sometimes called “the second Caruso,” delighted and astounded the Odessa opera connoisseurs before going on to the world fame.
When I visited Odessa for its 200’s anniversary celebration in 1995, my great-aunt (may she rest in piece) decided to treat me for Shabbos with her special Gefilte Fish, stuffed scumbria. We went fishing to the famous Odessa Privoz market. Plenty of fish, but no scumbria in sight, which was strange, since of the 130 kinds of fish in the Black Sea, scumbria has always been considered an Odessa delicacy. I asked a friendly fishmonger. “Ha!- was the answer, – Where is scumbria? And where is Mishka Yaponchik, I ask you? Where is the Great Caruso? Ah, Madame and Madamochka (little Madame – that was me), as soon as they found gas in our sea – they should have full bellies of that gas! – our scumbria waved her tail good-bye and went to Turkey. No more scumbria in Odessa!” I filed this tidbit under category 3, but sadly, the garrulous lady was right. Development of the Odeske gas field has affected marine environment and impacted marine life.
Fortunately sometimes we are able to buy fresh Atlantic mackerel here in Florida. It’s not Odessa scumbria, but a very close relative. Inspired by a great Russian chef and Youtube star Vasilij Emelyanenko, I make it Oriental style.
I prefer to mix marinade ingredients by hand, until I squeeze plenty of juice out of vegetables:
Two hours later, you have an original, totally delicious treat to savor and to impress company.
- 1 mackerel
- 1 medium size onion, sliced in semi-circles
- Bunch of dill with stems
- 1 medium size tomato, cut into bite size pieces
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- Cut fish, set aside
- Slash tail on both sides
- Prepare marinade, squeeze by hand
- Add marinade to fish, mix well
- Let stand for 2 hours, mix every 15 minutes